Interview with Mykaell Riley

University of Westminster music academic on fighting with punks, boosting Peter Andre’s career and pioneering ‘classical reggae’

November 16, 2017

Mykaell Riley, a founding member of Birmingham’s pioneering reggae band Steel Pulse, has worked with many successful UK pop artists as a writer, producer and arranger, and he is now director of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster. His research on Jamaican music’s impact on British society will be profiled at the “Bass in the Attic” talk at the Ritzy Theatre in Brixton on 19 November. It is one of more than 300 events taking place as part of Being Human, the UK’s only festival of the humanities, organised by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November.

Where and when were you born?

Birmingham in the 1960s.

How has this shaped you?

Being 120 miles from the capital city meant that part of me grew up aspiring to be somewhere else – London. But this distance from the capital allowed for time and space to translate ideas and perceptions about my own identity, culture and community into a local context. Growing up in what was constantly referred to as the second city provided the fuel and the focus to be the first anything I thought attainable.

As a teenager, you and your friends founded Steel Pulse. How did you combine education and music?
I did two apprenticeships – I’m a trained electrician and plumber – but the aspiration was always to be a professional musician. We couldn’t tell our families about this, however; I told my parents that I was in a band only two weeks before we signed to Island Records.

Steel Pulse toured the UK in the late 1970s with several punk bands, including the Stranglers, the Clash and Billy Idol’s Generation X. How were the audiences different from reggae ones?
Our [reggae] audiences in Handsworth [in Birmingham] were pretty hard core – if they didn’t like you, you’d often get bottled. Our main following was then the punk audience, who were also very challenging. They thought it was OK to attack or spit at you as part of their appreciation for you. We became quite notorious for fighting with our own audience – there were quite a few rucks at our gigs.

What is Steel Pulse’s contribution to British music and society?
Steel Pulse was at the forefront of establishing a black British identity for first-generation, black British-born individuals. At the time, many of them were asking “Are we British or Jamaican?” and quite a few looked to Jamaica [for their identity]. We wanted to create our own image, and [we] embraced our Britishness, saying “This is who we are”.

Have you had a eureka moment?
I’ve had many, but one that comes to mind is the creation of a black British string section. The Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra included the largest collection of black British classically trained musicians and members of the Jazz Warriors collective, creating a sound that came to be known as “classical reggae”. In the early 1990s, it challenged perceptions and ideas of what was possible for both genres, particularly within a live performance context.

What is the record you’re proudest to have been involved with? 
Soul II Soul’s first album, Club Classics Vol. One, which has reportedly sold more than 4 million copies. I’m particularly proud of this production as it profiled the work of the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra string section and for the first time showcased black classically trained musicians within a pop context.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things about my job are often also the worst things about my job – people. But whether [they are] young or old, it’s always exciting and energising to engage with open active, curious minds.

You’ve worked with East 17, Wet Wet Wet, Jamiroquai and other successful bands of the 1990s. How did that compare with your own experience of performing?
Working with East 17 was a different experience for me – they were very focused on generating the largest amount of income as quickly as possible. It was not about having any sort of a message, credibility or politics, which was everything that I was about. They were really nice guys, but I saw how they were quickly transformed by the darker forces in the music industry.

Tell us about a musical artist you enjoyed working with.
Peter Andre was a pleasure to work with – he was the most unassuming, innocent and honest guy. [His song] Mysterious Girl actually flopped when it was first released, but I took a song called Only One, rewrote the backing track and it became his first UK hit single. Talent comes in many shapes and forms – his talent is surviving in this industry. Anyone who can carve out a career as he has done is extremely talented.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. Are there any British-Jamaican artists who can also lay claim to producing great literature?
I would highlight the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson. He profiled the struggles of black British youth in his poems Sonny’s Lettah and Inglan Is a Bitch, which are great examples of how the Jamaican dialect and a reggae backing track can deliver powerful emotional insights to the social and political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.

Your latest research on grime music was recently profiled on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. What is this musical style’s unique contribution to British society?
The black community in the UK has delivered a different music phenomenon every three to five years ever since the 1950s. In the mid-90s it was two-step, trip hop, jungle. Grime – which started with the likes of So Solid Crew – is the latest to cross over to the mainstream, but I think it’s different this time. Black artists are breaking through and then keeping hold of the genre because they are operating outside the [traditional] system. Stormzy, Skepta, Wiley and BBK have created an alternative system in which they’ve mastered marketing, merchandising and the technology [behind music distribution] and spearheaded what has become a youth-led cultural movement.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Greg Walker has been appointed the next chief executive of MillionPlus, the UK’s association of modern universities. He will take up the post in January, when Pam Tatlow steps down. Dr Walker was previously deputy chief executive of Colleges Wales and acting director of Universities Wales. He worked on the Diamond Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales, and he has led on the implementation of Universities UK’s review of the UK’s higher education sector agencies. Dr Walker said that he would be joining the organisation “at a critical time, at the cusp of a new regulatory system and a renewed debate over university funding. Modern universities are engines of high-level skills and drivers of social mobility in cities and towns across the UK. As we seek durable answers to our productivity challenges, I’m convinced that the contribution of modern universities will be a central part of the solution.”

Linda Doyle has been appointed the new dean of research at Trinity College Dublin. Currently professor of engineering and the arts (computer science), she will lead and manage the university’s research, innovation, technology transfer and entrepreneurship strategies in her new role, as well as chair its research committee. Professor Doyle, an expert in wireless communications, is one of Trinity’s most prolific authors, having published hundreds of papers and secured more than €70 million (£62 million) in research funding over the past decade as director of Connect, a Science Foundation Ireland centre focused on communications technology.

Paul Cousins has started as the new head of the University of Bristol’s School of Economics, Finance and Management. He joins from the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester, where he was professor of operations management and was the school’s deputy director.

Garnett S. Stokes has been named the next president of the University of New Mexico. She will join from the University of Missouri, where she has been provost and executive vice-chancellor for academic affairs since February 2015, having also served as interim chancellor between May and August 2017.

Allison Roman is to take the new role of director for diversity and inclusion at Trinity University, a liberal arts college based in San Antonio, Texas.

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